First-Year Preceptorial

Course Description Archive 01 - 02

First-Year Seminar Descriptions, 2001-2002

  1. Vision and Revision, from Snake-Handling to Socialism

    "I didn't stop to think about it. I just gave in. I stepped forward and took the snake with both hands." A seemingly rational journalist gives in and joins a cult of snake-handlers. A seemingly rational farmer abuses his daughters. A seemingly rational professor leaves his job and takes up living in a shack in the Appalachians. A seemingly rational culture slowly poisons itself on junk food. We will look at these acts and others like them from a perspective both skeptical and sympathetic, in a way that will seek to improve your skills as a reader, a writer, critical thinker, and, perhaps, as a citizen of a world that has seemingly gone mad.

  2. Gender, Race, and Sexuality

    Are men "naturally" more violent than women? Is there any scientific basis for the idea of race? What happens to a child raised by gay parents? These questions and others like them occur when we try to draw the line between human behavior that is "natural" and that which is culturally acquired. In this class, we will track the ways in which ideas about what is "natural" have been used over the centuries to justify Western cultural beliefs and practices. As we explore the history of ideas about gender, race, and sexuality, we will be particularly interested in the influence of philosophical and scientific discourses about what is "natural" on the legal and social practices that regulate our behavior. Readings will include excerpts from texts by Aristotle, Thomas Kuhn, Simone de Beauvoir, Shakespeare, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Thomas Jefferson, and Stephen Jay Gould.

  3. The Quest for Knowledge

    It has been said about greatness that some people seek it, while others have it thrust upon them, and the same holds true for knowledge. Some people acquire knowledge by experiencing it through their senses or emotions. But others make it their mission to seek knowledge, even when that knowledge may be dangerous to their physical or mental well-being. In this course, we will read about three categories of individuals --families, soul-searchers, and detectives -- who have embarked on quests for knowledge that may result in cataclysmic changes in the way they think and act. The ways in which each category seeks knowledge and the nature of that knowledge itself are altered by culture, class, gender, and historical context, as we will discover through carefully selected readings and films. In the novels Things Fall Apart, Comfort Woman, and The House on the Blue Lagoon, we will read about African, Korean-American, and Latin American families whose search to know each other reveals secrets that shatter their lives. Then we embark with Arjuna in the Baghavad Gita and Plato on the search for enlightenment about the relationship between humanity and the cosmos. And finally, we will delve into the minds and milieu of detectives like Sherlock Holmes in England and the incorruptible Judge Bao in imperial China. For them, the search for knowledge about the evil that motivates the criminal mind often involves great danger. By the time we reach the end of the term, it should be clear that there is a fourth category whose quest for knowledge presents the delicious danger of opening their minds to new worlds of intellectual discovery. I refer, of course, to students.

  4. The Burden of the Bible ? - Philosophical and Literary Responses

    Once upon a time …. the Bible knew it all. Who we are, what we know, and what we are supposed to do - the Bible and its eloquent interpreters had the answer for us. Until the 'rebellion' of 18th-century Enlightenment and its favoring of rational investigation, the Bible attempted and insisted to be the sole provider of meaning for a world of obvious randomness, if not chaos. The certainty of the story of Creation linked to an infallible plan for its creatures (us, among others!) gave way to technological achievements and a new scientific certainty - a certainty ultimately linked to your beloved class on calculus. Together with scientific or philosophical sureness, however, rose the market value of doubt, fear and nihilism. We will investigate a series of philosophical and literary affirmations, critiques, and disparagements of the most essential document in the Western world. Texts such as Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Voltaire's Candide, Kafka's The Trial and Beckett's Waiting for Godot will accompany a series of philosophical essays by philosophers like Kant, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Whether we like it or not, one way or another the Bible and its motifs are still with us.

  5. Conflicts and Fiascos (and how they create meaning)

    In this course we will look at how a sense of meaning rises out of conflicts, how the sense of new understandings or discoveries (not always comfortable ones) can arise out of the tension between opposing forces or ideas. This topic will provide us with a standpoint for the discussion of a the work of a variety of writers (including Shakespeare, Jane Smiley, Lao Tsu, James Baldwin, Tim O'Brien, Sarah Vowell, and Dennis Covington), and it will also serve as an introduction to the structure of the personal essay, which often works by creating a sense of conflict with which the author and reader must come to terms.

  6. Travel Writing

    This section of FP explores ways of knowing through travel writing. Good travel writing is an old tradition (Marco Polo, Darwin, Josephus, Tacitus as examples), but more recently has become a growth industry of sorts. Adventurers are attracted by the personal challenge, and by the idea of conquest, whether a mountain, a desert, or other inhospitable geography; another kind of adventure writer is thrilled by war and its immediate dangers, but also fascinated by its truths, for the individual soldier as well as the larger political context, whether in Vietnam, Nicaragua, or Angola. But more often the travel writer explores a country, a culture, or a series of societies linked by some idea. The travel writer might actually be on a trip, interviewing, wandering, but mostly observing; or she/he might live in a place (not home) for a period of time, and his/her writing reflect observations and conclusions about this place, more or less like an amateur (unqualified?) anthropologist.

    What links all good travel writing is the connection between self and other. In leaving home, the travel writer is trying to comprehend the other, the foreign, the outside, to make sense of that place, those people; but at the same time, the travel writer is also in pursuit of his own place in the world, how his own home and its society compares, and how she/he stands, identifies, can be more fulfilled, whole, by knowing more about how other people live. Thus our FP will explore the process of knowing, its possibilities and limitations, its advantages and obstacles, and in so doing will learn more about ourselves and those not like ourselves. Our readings include those travel writers from the United States that look at our own society with fresh eyes, ears and mind, and a critical (although often humorous) spirit. Some of the writers who may be included are: Bill Bryson, Paul Theroux, Dervla Murphy, Andrea Barrett, Eric Newby, Freya Stark, V.S. Naipaul, Clifford Geertz, Riccardo Orizio, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Tiziano Terzani, John Steinbeck, etc.

  7. Nature and Culture

    The interaction of human beings and nature is as old as the origins of homo sapiens, and has assumed an endless variety of forms. We have often regarded nature as a mirror of ourselves - nature personified, idealized and gendered - or as the "other", to be feared, resisted and dominated. This course will examine these attitudes through texts ranging from the pastoral poetry of ancient Greece and Rome to twentieth century novels, history and environmental writing. We will consider where nature has been located: in the realm of the imaginary and the real, the historical and the contemporary, the literary and the scientific, and as a site for romantic escape or political action. Our investigation will include music. Union College music professor and composer Hilary Tann will discuss the role of nature in twentieth century music, and the class will attend the performance of one of her recent compositions. Readings will include Theocritus and Virgil (selections), the Song of Songs and St Francis' Canticle of the Sun, Shakespeare's The Tempest, Thoreau's Walden, stories by Horacio Quiroga, John McPhee's The Control of Nature, Jane Smiley's 1000 Acres, David Quammen's The Song of the Dodo, and Judith Shapiro's Mao's War Against Nature.

  8. The Self -Evident Truth of Inequality

    There has never been a society that was free of inequality between its citizens - political, economic, or social. In this seminar we will look at the ways that different people, in different times and places, have understood the causes and consequences of this inequality. Why does it persist? Can it be eliminated, and if so, how? Is a society of true equals possible, or are we destined always to live in a society where some people are more equal than others? Many different answers are possible; the Bible and the Baghavad Gita answer the question in religious terms, Plato and Freidrich Nietzche answer it in philosophical terms, and Karl Marx and Fredrick Douglass answer it in social/historical terms. We will look at the perspectives of those who have found themselves at the top of the structure and those who have found themselves at the bottom, those who have sought to justify it, those who have sought to overthrow it, and those who have sought simply to reconcile themselves to it.

  9. The Other

    From birth, we are taught to conform, not to be different. As a result, we distrust or are fearful of those who are different, who represent "the other." This course will examine, through texts by Gide, Balzac, Virginia Woolf, Gogol, and others, some traditional examples of people considered to be different-the artist, the homosexual, women in a male dominated society. Since we are at Union, we are all the same. But obviously we were not all raised according to the same norms. What happens when we have to confront the different in our daily lives? What happens when we realize that we are different or are forced to be "the other"? Using texts by some social theorists such as Freud and Foucault, we will examine life at Union today both in terms of difference and conformity. Ramée's campus presents a norm to which we should conform. Our terms abroad program forces us to be outsiders in another society. How do we exist in this deliberate tension?

  10. "Vision and Re-vision: Race, Gender, Sexuality"

    Amazons. Savages. Matriarchies. Harems. Witch-burnings. Gay-bashing. Secret societies. Abortion. Prostitution. What is at stake in the violent demarcation of racial, sexual and gender divisions, in varying historical times and regions of the world? We will explore not only the stakes in these "wars" of "nature" and "culture," but also what is at stake in studying and theorizing about them. Are characteristics of race, gender, and sexuality innate, learned, or constructed? Is it possible to decide? If we may not agree on answers, we may at least examine what is signified in a culture by the posing of questions and the ways that they are being and have been posed.

  11. Vision and Revision

    Does Western invention determine the ways in which the "other" is perceived? In this course we will discuss the concept of the "other" by comparing differing views pertaining to cultural groups and gender. Students will read a number of texts from the traditional Western perspective as "vision" and others by individuals from within the cultural or gender group as "revision." I have selected three areas: the colonized, the border, and gender for the focus of this class. In addition to primary texts we will read information that provides a socio-historical background, and we will watch related films outside class.

    "The Colonized" will focus on the Congo as a colony with readings including Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. We will view the film "The Red Dust". "Borders" examines the border between Mexico and the United States with a focus on the Mexicans and Americans on both side of the border. Readings will include Tomás Rivera's seminal chicano novel, And the Earth did Not Swallow Him (with the film version of the novel). "Gender" analyzes sexuality and gender with readings from Plato, Freud, de Beauvoir and a variety of plays and essays.

  12. Literature and Life (and how they correspond with each other)

    In this course we will look at the profound interdependence between artifice (literature) and reality (life). Literature, obviously, is a product of reality -- but it also continually forms and shapes the reality that engenders it. Is literature, in its multifaceted relationship with the objective reality of one's existence, a magnifying glass -- or a faithful mirror? Or perhaps -- neither of the two? The discussion on this, rather eternal and inexhaustive topic, will be facilitated by the work of a wide variety of writers that we'll be reading: Shakespeare and Tolstoy, Lao Tsu and Bulgakov, Tim O'Brien and Flannery O'Connor, Chekhov and Gordimer, among many others.

  13. Nature and Culture

    In this section of the First-year Preceptorial, we will spend the term on a single unanswerable question: "Is it nature, or is it culture?" Through readings and films, discussion and writing, we will explore ways that this question has been posed and analyze the attempts to answer it. The topics will range from science to art, from politics to food, and from spirituality to sexuality; readings will include (among others) Plato, Marx, Freud, Kuhn, Foucault, Achebe, and Stoppard; films will include (among others) "The Birds," "Alien," and "Paris is Burning." This section promises as much confusion as clarity and guarantees more questions than answers.

  14. Ways of Knowing and Understanding

    How does the world work? How is it ordered? Who's in charge? On what basis do we make decisions and live our lives? How do we respond when things go wrong? The Bhagavad-Gita, Hamlet, and the Tao Te Ching offer strikingly different answers to these questions. These works have a lot to say to students as they make decisions that affect their daily lives and their futures. Hinduism teaches the value of disciplining one's desires and conforming one's will to divine will in order to become truly free and content. Hamlet shows what happens when the individual is cut free from the past and must learn how to act in a "modern" world that provides neither moral nor religious support. Taoism challenges our cherished western belief that the more we know and the harder we work, the happier we will be. What do we do when life presents us with its unavoidable hardships? We will explore the religious and non-religious answers to this question found in the Book of Job and Harold Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People as well as in Woody Allen's movie Crimes and Misdemeanors.

  15. Nature and Culture

    Typically, being "civilized" is regarded as having a positive connotation. However, a number of writers, philosophers, and artists have thought that civilization, particularly in its modern form, has a corrupting influence upon humanity. Indeed, many of them have argued that civilization erects formidable, if not insurmountable, barriers to achieving happiness. This course introduces the liberal arts curriculum by considering a number of works that explore the nature of civilization, the alleged ill effects of civilization upon humanity, and whether there are any means to remedying these effects. Readings may include: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe; Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud; The Immoralist by Andre Gide; The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx; Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche; "A Discourse on the Origins of Inequality" by Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Rabbit, Run by John Updike; and A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf. Along with discussions of the readings, class meetings will also include discussions of artistic movements related to the course's themes, such as Primitivism, and screenings of films related to the course's themes, such as Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times".

  16. Culture and Human Nature

    Why do boys like guns and girls like dolls? Do social inequalities result from biological differences in intelligence? Why is ADD endemic among contemporary American children but rare in other cultures? These are just a few of the questions that will be addressed in a wide-ranging exploration of the relationship between culture and human nature. We will examine Western and non-Western philosophical debates about the effect of culture on the individual: are individuals repressed by social constraints or do they find meaning through enacting social roles? We will then analyze the relationship between culture and human nature by exploring three specific topics: I) the ways that children acquire culture and gender roles; ii) the ways cultural systems define biological illnesses; iii) debates about the uses of IQ tests and SAT scores to justify social inequalities. Works read will include selections by Freud, Durkheim, Piaget, Goffman, Gould, and others.

  17. Against Method.

    "'Truth eludes the methodical man,' says Gadamer. Thank God! That's why poets have a chance!" (Charles Simac). Despite a heavy lading of poems and prose about poetry, this is not a course about how to read poetry. It is about ways of understanding language that often seems strange and "almost resists intelligence" (Wallace Stevens). The clear, flowing prose essays of poets Seamus Heaney and Charles Simac will direct the readings and be models of choices one has in writing about elusive material. Simac remarks that "poetry attracts me because it makes trouble for thinkers." We'll enjoy and try to figure out how to write about the trouble.

  18. Science, Culture and Religion

    Science, religion, and culture represent three of the many tools we have available to give meaning to our existence and to understand the purpose of existence. Often these three different ways of knowing stand in apparent contradiction to each other. For example, are science and religion necessarily incompatible? Does a belief in evolution imply the absence of a transcendent creative force (e.g., a God)? To what extent are religious beliefs shaped and influenced by our culture and those around us? Are religious beliefs simply psychological illusions? These are some of the many questions we will address in this course as we explore the dynamic interplay among scientific theory and findings, religious doctrine and beliefs, and pertinent cultural forces. Drawing from readings in diverse fields such as biology, theology, physics, psychology, literature, and philosophy, we will seek to identify, investigate, and understand sources of tension between and among these disparate modes of inquiry and address whether such conflict and tension can reasonably be resolved. Readings will likely include, among others, Finding Darwin's God, by K. Miller, The Origin of the Species, by C. Darwin, The Genesis Flood by J. C. Witcomb and H. M. Morris, On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, by St Augustine, The Future of an Illusion, by S. Freud, and The Red Tent, by A. Diamant.

  19. Family and Society: Initiation and Taboo

    How do we come to know who we are and what we believe? How do our families affect our boundaries--what we will and will not do? What does "family" mean? What are the events, both subtle and ritualized, that initiate us into the many societies into which we are born or with which we eventually have significant contact? We will begin with Judeo-Christian and Native American accounts of creation, with their different perceptions of relationships between people and between the human and the divine. We will then discuss the roles of women in Islam, especially in the U.S., and discuss a Moroccan family's political imprisonment. We will explore families as envisioned by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, and Sam Shepard. In poetry, fiction, and drama, we will encounter African-, Native-, Hispanic, and Caucasian-American family groups, as well as a family from Antigua.

  20. Literature, Religion and Cultural Criticism

    "This course will introduce you to a variety of texts, both ancient and contemporary, from the (often overlapping) genres of literature, religion, and cultural criticism. Readings will include Aeschylus' Oresteia, the Bible, Freud's Future of an Illusion, Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee, and Christa Wolf's Cassandra. The overarching theme of the course might be formulated as "the ethical relationship of the individual to society and society to the individual." How do individuals make a place for themselves in society and how does society make a place for them? How and for what reasons do individuals reject society and vice versa? Simply stated, the course aims to develop your ability to think critically and imaginatively by reading, discussing, and writing about literature. There will be regular quizzes and five essays.

  21. Ways of Knowing: Seeing, Hearing, Perceiving Thro' the Art of the Illustrated Book

    William Blake writes, "We are led to Believe a Lie/When we see With not Thro' the eye." Because we should want to live as direct, honest and worthwhile lives as we can, we'll be eyeing a variety of books that touch on a variety of disciplines--- religion, philosophy, history, politics, natural science, poetry, myth, drama, song---to see how writers and interpreting illustrators work hand in hand to try to wake us up to what's of real value as we make our ways. To echo Bob Dylan: "When We Gonna Wake Up?" By verbal and visual provocation, these illustrated, 'illuminating' books will, at best, enlighten us so that we come to know more surely and comfortably ourselves, our culture in relation to others, our world. The hope is that with clearer understanding, we'll be able to distinguish more sharply between what's genuine and truly significant and what's thinly-disguised rubbish in the materialistic, consumer-satiated, spirit-depleted, high-tech, low-humane world we inhabit.

  22. Innocence and Experience = The Storyteller's Art

    This course will explore the ways we come to understand the meaning of "innocence" and "experience" as they are revealed in the "storytelling" of selected fiction writers, personal essayists, poets and visual artists, singers, film makers. We will consider such subjects as how storytelling "truth" relates to "happening truth"; why stories are told; the relationship of story to ritual; the nature of ceremonies; stories as ways of expressing personal, family, and public histories; the ways visual art and illustration can change written art; the ways musical art can change written art; the role of tragedy in storytelling; the role of humor in storytelling; the role of lies in storytelling; the ways stories define and are defined by one's culture. Throughout, the themes that link the tales we'll explore will be the nature of innocence and experience, and the relationship of one to the other.

  23. Ways of Understanding

    "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Using classics of Western and non-Western literature as well as recent writings from biology and sociology, this seminar examines the contradictions that surround us, in order to better understand ourselves and our world. Topics include: Insider vs. Outsider (Achebe, Things Fall Apart), Individual vs. Society (Ibsen, Enemy of the People), Action vs. Non-Action (The Bhagavad-Gita), Being vs. Non-Being (Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being), Nature vs. Nurture (Stephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History), Male vs. Female (Robert McElvaine, Eve's Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and the Course of History), Sense vs. Nonsense (Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.)

  24. Ways of Knowing: The Spirit, the Self, and Society

    If God is omnipotent and just, why is there evil in the world? Why do bad things happen to good people? Can there be moral order in a world with no God? This course begins by exploring these and other questions about the search for spiritual understanding as we read such works as the Book of Job and Voltaire's Candide and watch Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors. It then turns to the search for self among those whom society has historically considered outsiders. How do "outsiders" understand themselves and their relation to society? For this section we will read such works as Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior and Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and watch Spike Lee's Malcolm X. Finally we will explore attempts to understand the principles upon which society is best organized. Should society be organized to maximize the individual pursuit of happiness? Or should it be organized along principles of justice? Selections from Milton and Rose Friedman's Free to Choose, Thomas More's Utopia, and Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia will guide us through a discussion of this issue.

  25. The Individual

    The course will focus on the individual. The first part, which is more personal in nature, will explore one's progress through life and its stages: the discovery of the self in childhood and through its memories, the family unit, relationships, love, sex, marriage, and finally death. The second will address the confrontation between the individual and the universe as manifested by the Big Bang, faith, reason, randomness, and freedom. These topics will be viewed from several points of reference.

  26. Nature and Culture

Is culture determined by human nature? Or is our vision of nature a product of our culture? Can we know the truth about nature if we are culturally-embedded? Do/should cultural, social and political concerns influence our scientific visions of nature? We will examine these questions about nature and culture in four different debates: 1) Some psychologists argue that intelligence is determined by natural endowment and that racial differences in IQ scores between African-Americans and Whites are due to genetics. Others argue that the differences are due to social and cultural factors. Texts will include Gould's The Mismeasure of Man, Herrnstein's The Bell Curve, and the documentary The IQ Myth. 2) Scientists present their investigations and theories as objective visions of the natural world, but sociologists of science see scientific accounts of nature as socially and culturally determined. To what extent do we impose science on nature and at what cost? Texts will include Darwin, Latour, Haraway, and the novel White Noise. 3) Many psychologists believe that homosexuality and heterosexuality are determined by different social experiences, but other scientists propose that they are due to biological differences. Is homosexuality a matter of choice or biology and why does it matter? Texts will include Isay, Sedgewick, the novels Funny Boy and A Boy's Own Story, and the film, But I'm a Cheerleader! 4) Western explorers, colonists and anthropologists have often seen other peoples as primitive and more natural than 'civilized' Europeans. Many non-European writers have argued that these visions are myths and reveal Western cultural biases. Texts will include Said, Appiah, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and the film Apocalypse Now.